Arts Funding: To Please, to Provoke or to Serve?


early-operaHere’s my grand theory of everything (about arts funding). In the beginning, art was created by anyone with the talent and inclination to do so. But they still had their day job: hunting, gathering and all that. At a certain point, it was recognized that the artist needed time and support to develop and express his/her creativity. So those that had the resources (chiefs, kings, popes, etc.) sponsored artists to create on their behalf. And that art had a purpose: to deliver a message about the glories of the state and church. Or perhaps to record and share their story. Or even just to entertain or please the king with images, stories and sounds.

Over time, commercially-driven arts and entertainment grew and even prospered. Roving bands of actors or musicians moved from town to town, supported only by what they could collect from audiences. Painters and writers learning to mass-produce their work. And so on. But let’s stick with the subsidized side of the business, because that’s where our biggest challenge lies today. And to keep my grand theory simple, let’s just keep referring to those sponsors and supporters of the arts as the modern day version of the king — those in control of the treasury, making decisions on who and what gets funded.

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So, while we started out with the king sponsoring and commissioning art on basis of its beauty or value as story, image or sounds, two more types of supported artists emerged — one very early and another very recently.

The JesterPerhaps the most fascinating artist to pop up in olden times was the jester, one part entertainer and one part provocateur, who was employed by the king, queen or lord to amuse but also to condemn, attack and lambaste those in power. The jester was essentially licensed to criticize, excused by decree for bad behavior and provocations.

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The jester was a familiar figure in the Middle Ages, but there were also versions in Ancient Egypt and in the Aztec kingdoms. Clearly, the idea of having someone who could express what others couldn’t to those in power was deemed valuable. The tradition of court jesters ended with the overthrow of Charles I. Oliver Cromwell had no use for such things, and after the restoration, Charles II replaced that tradition with frequent trips to the theater. In his famous diary, Samuel Pepys calls the great theater artist of that time “the King’s fool and jester, with the power to mock and revile even the most prominent without penalty.”

That tradition of the artist-as-provocateur has continued and developed in a number of directions. Coming of age in Canada in the 1980s, I was amazed at the level of government support for experimental theater that had a distinctly subversive streak. Directors like Bill Glassco, Sky Gilbert and George F. Walker were pushing all sorts of buttons about urban poverty, corporate corruption and gay rights.

And now we have a third type of supported artist, the one that does work that lifts up people and communities. They are seen and used as a tool for economic and community development, essentially helping the king do his job — advancing the lives of his subjects, developing his communities, and making society more peaceful and harmonious.

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Federal Project #1 PosterPerhaps one of the first examples of funding for these purposes was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Federal Project Number One of the 1930’s, in which thousands of musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors were employed in large arts, drama, media and literacy projects that created jobs and lifted the nation’s spirits.

In more recent times, there has been a strong push and pull to connect the arts with broader goals. The pull has come from government in its recognition that support for the arts and arts projects might help rebuild downtowns, attract companies to locate there, drive cultural tourism and build a sense of identity and pride in the community. On the push side, many of us in the industry have been actively engaged in making the argument that the arts can make people, communities and societies better in all sorts of amazing ways, from increasing test scores, literacy and a sense of place to reducing crime, racism and homelessness.

This is happening for many reasons. Cynically, there is a recognition that general public support for the arts is declining, so all of us are working very hard to convince the public that the arts do much more than please the precious few who can afford ballet tickets. But in a more positive way, we are seeing that it actually works.

Dances for a Variable Population performanceI was hired by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs last year to teach strategic planning to 18 small arts organizations in the five boroughs. And I’m continuing to coach nine of them. What’s amazing is the strong public purpose and mission of these organizations: Dances for a Variable Population is dedicated to teaching movement to senior citizens to improve their physical and mental health. En Foco supports minority photographers and the need to document their cultural heritage and advance their communities towards democracy. And The Laundromat Project takes art and artists into laundromats in traditionally underserved neighborhoods, addressing the issues relevant to those places and people.

The other thing that’s amazing about these groups and others like them is how they are supported. Many of them just scrape by, but others are able to tap into all sorts of non-traditional funding sources. Again this is partly because traditional arts funding is so hard to come by, but it also reflects the fact that sectors like healthcare, juvenile justice, economic development, tourism and education are prepared to finance art and artists to serve their particular goals.

What this all boils down to is the choice artists have in terms of their pitch for support — they can ask for help to either please the king, provoke the king or help the king do his job. And clearly we are moving rapidly to a funding environment in which one is much more likely to receive funding for work that serves rather than provoking or simply pleasing.

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I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I love that so many small and emerging arts organizations have such strong and worthy missions that really are making the world a better place. And that many larger organizations have developed amazing education and outreach programs that deliver measurable benefits at the individual and community level.

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But we’re left with a couple of problems. First of all, fewer artists and organizations are prepared to bite the hand that feeds. Organizations, in an increasingly fragile state, are much more fearful of losing a funder based on a programmatic choice. And few funders are explicitly interested in supporting artists and organizations who are provocative.

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And what do we do about the artist and organization whose work is simply about reflecting our own lives back to us, or creating something beautiful, or simply making sounds that connect to our primal selves? As the recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts makes clear, only a small minority of adults ever buy a ticket to a professional performance of dramatic theater (8.3%), classical music (8.8%) or ballet (2.7%). And support for those disciplines is an increasingly tough sell, particularly for government.

So what happens if we only support art that serves the political and economic goals of those in charge? First, our democracy is weakened if the jester is no longer licensed to confront us with our follies and foolishness. Second, without the art that connects at that fundamental level, the world becomes an ugly place.

The point is that we need to support art and artists who serve, provoke and simply create. Few do all of these things. Nor should they. But we need to find funding models in which those three reasons to create are all valued and supported. Otherwise the king will wake up one morning to a dark and unruly kingdom.